University of Illinois

The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

This is how I will remember him: Articulate, witty, with a probing intellect, He was a strong First Amendment liberal, a lover of music, magazines and books. And there was the pipe, of course. He'd look over the top of his glasses, puffing on the pipe, while he was thinking.

I'm talking about Theodore Peterson, of course, the legendary journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign whose class on modern magazines was a rite of passage for thousands of young writers and editors.

Take Hugh Hefner, for example.

If you took Peterson's class (as I did in graduate school), you learned quite a bit about the back-story on Hefner and the class-project dream that years later turned into a magazine celebrating sex and grown-up toys, linking consumerism with moral libertarianism.

Peterson had a theory about modern magazines, which was that -- while providing niche content for readers and advertisers -- they needed to make some kind of statement about the personality and beliefs of the founder. They needed to sell a worldview. Hefner was the perfect example and the key was the Playboy-in-chief's desire to shed his past and escape.

Escape what? That is where morality and religion -- the old Methodism -- is an essential part of the Hefner story and, thus, any obituary that attempts to sum up his life. I'm not joking: Editors may want to consider allowing religion-beat reporters to take part in the coverage of Hef and his legacy. After all, the Sexual Revolution was a new take on a very ancient religion.

As you would expect, the Hefner obituaries are packed with colorful symbolic details. There's speculation on the number of women he bedded. What about the implications of his emotional immaturity, when linked to a 152 IQ? Do the math and you end up with the 2,500-plus volumes of his personal scrapbook, which probably featured images from the $40,000 video-camera system above his 7-foot round bed.

News consumers can expect, in the follow-up coverage, lots of debate about Hefner as feminist or anti-feminist. Was he a figure of liberation, oppression or addiction? Was his fierce support of abortion rights rather self-serving? Someone should ask fake-bunny Gloria Steinem, or perhaps Holly Madison, author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny."

In most of the obituaries, there is some kind of reference to Hefner's parents and their religious convictions. The Associated Press feature, as one would expect, had less room with which to work, but did manage this telling passage:

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Religion ghost? Concerning the shocking Gallup numbers about public trust in news media

Religion ghost? Concerning the shocking Gallup numbers about public trust in news media

A long, long time ago, I wrote my journalism graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about -- I am sure this will be a shock -- why so many mainstream newsrooms tend to ignore (or mangle) the role that religion plays in local, national and global news. Click here for the condensed version of that project that ran as a cover story with The Quill.

When talking to newspaper editors back in academic year 1981-82, I heard two things over and over: (1) religion news is too boring and (2) religion news is too controversial.

As I have said many times, the world is just packed with boring, controversial religion stories. The only way to make sense out of those answers, I thought at the time, was that editors considered these stories "boring" and they could not understand why so many readers cared so deeply about religious events, issues and trends.

At one point in that project, I discussed research done for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company late in the 1970s. Yes, that was long ago. However, I believe some of those survey results remain relevant today, as we consider the stunning numbers in a new Gallup Poll that indicate that consumer trust in the American news media has crashed to a new low.

We will come back to those numbers in a moment. The key question: Is the public attitude toward the press linked, in some way, to issues of media bias in coverage of moral, cultural and religious news, as well as the predictable levels of anger linked to coverage of the remarkably unpopular major-party candidates in this year's White House race.

So back to 1980 or so. The Connecticut Mutual Life study found, as I wrote for The Quill, that:

... (The) sector of the public that is the most religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events that dominate daily newspapers. ... About 20 percent of all Americans, a group the survey calls the "most religious," are the people most likely to be involved in, and interested in local news. The survey shows:

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